Thursday, September 21, 2006

October eyed for Iran action

Carol Giacomo and Claudia Parsons, Swiss Info:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday signalled a willingness to negotiate as major powers said Tehran had until early October to agree to suspend its nuclear programme.

"Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran is willing to negotiate but there needs to be flexibility on both sides," Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said in a written statement after meeting Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly meeting.

Prodi, the first European Union head of government to meet the Iranian leader, later told reporters, "we left each other without any concrete step forward but with, I think, clear ideas on the need for a step forward."

Prodi and European diplomats said divisions remain over a core issue -- what it would mean for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

"Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran's right to go ahead in research in the nuclear field, and I insisted on the need for a complete halt in the military aspect of the research," Prodi said.

"There wasn't a yes or a no said to me on the positions that I expressed," the Italian leader added.

The United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany agreed on Tuesday to give European negotiator Javier Solana more time to reach a diplomatic solution with Tehran before resuming a push for U.N. Security Council sanctions.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters: "We're expecting a quick response from the Iranians." A senior French diplomat, speaking anonymously, said Iran should agree to suspend enrichment by the beginning of October.

Another European diplomat said Washington wants Iran's answer by October 1. Some countries were ready to be more flexible but the timeline is generally the same, he said.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns on Tuesday refused to say how long the United States, the leading sanctions advocate, would wait for Solana's talks with chief Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani to bear fruit.

U.S. officials said the major powers had a secret deadline.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, said: "What more needs to happen for the world to take this threat seriously? What more needs to happen to end the hesitation and excuses? ... We know the consequences of appeasement and indifference."

Israel, believed to have its own nuclear weapon, considers a nuclear-armed Iran would be a mortal threat.


The six powers have offered Tehran economic and political inducements if it suspends uranium enrichment, which the West says is part of a nuclear weapons programme. Tehran says its program is peaceful, to generate electricity.

The powers set a August 31 deadline for Iran to suspend the programme but Tehran ignored their demand. Since then, Solana has been in talks with Larijani, trying to keep diplomacy alive.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters that Solana had an unlimited mandate to go "anywhere at any time" in order to resolve differences with the Iranians.

An Iranian official in Tehran said Larijani and Solana spoke by telephone on Wednesday and decided to meet next week in an undisclosed European capital.

Douste-Blazy said France proposed a "dual suspension," by which the majors powers would halt their push for U.N. sanctions if Iran suspends enrichment.

But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran would have to suspend its programme before negotiations start.

The European diplomat said the six powers were still discussing the sequencing of events to give Iran a "face-saving" way to come to the table.

One possibility is for Solana, possibly accompanied by senior officials from all major powers but the United States, to hold negotiating sessions with Larijani that would end with Iran announcing plans to suspend enrichment and the powers announcing a halt to their sanctions drive.

Once the IAEA verifies the suspension, formal negotiations would begin with Rice at the table, marking the highest-level U.S.-Iran contacts in years. The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic revolution. READ MORE

(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Sue Pleming and Elizabeth Pineau at the United Nations)